About That New IHEP Report

My thoughts on "The Role and Relevance of Rankings in Higher Education Policymaking"


College rankings are having an impact in the marketplace. As a result, colleges ought to use rankings responsibly as a policy tool and not as the sole basis for judging themselves against other institutions. These conclusions come from a recently published analysis, "The Role and Relevance of Rankings in Higher Education Policymaking," compiled by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), a public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C.

The report's key findings on rankings are:

1. A durable fixture in the marketplace of information on colleges, rankings inform public notions of college quality. College rankings are one way stakeholders of higher education obtain information on institutions and construct notions of educational quality.

2. Data limitations restrict the usefulness of college rankings to policymakers. The usefulness of college rankings is limited by the availability of credible and comparable data indicators.

3. The structure of rankings limits the transference of information relevant to policy.

4. Rankings have the potential to shift institutional behaviors in ways that may negatively affect policy goals. Rankings create incentives for institutions to take actions designed to improve their positions.

The report's three main recommendations to policymakers are:

1. Take precautions to ensure that college rankings are used only as part of overall system assessment efforts and not as a stand alone evaluation of colleges.

2. Support the collection of data that can be used to craft more policy-relevant college rankings, such as providing funds to higher education institutions to widely implement and publish the results of student learning assessments.

3. Leverage public attention to college rankings to shape general notions of college quality and advance equity goals.

What's my interpretation of this IHEP report?

Its recommendations are solely aimed at higher education policymakers and top academics working at the colleges themselves. It's very important to remember that the U.S. News America's Best Colleges rankings are primarily geared toward consumers—prospective students and their parents, both in the United States and globally. We believe that our rankings provide one important tool to use in helping applicants choose the right college to attend.

It's true that our America's Best Colleges rankings are increasingly being used by many colleges for benchmarking and as part of other higher education policy goals. Some schools, including Clemson University in South Carolina and Arizona State University, have been very public about their efforts to rise in the rankings and have set their campus policies accordingly. It's not the intent of U.S. News to provide college administrators with such policy tools, and we have cautioned academia about potential problems that come with using the America's Best Colleges rankings for benchmarking and other goals. The IHEP report is correct to point out that top academics and boards of trustees at colleges need to consider the many complicated issues that can develop when they use the U.S. New s rankings to set policy goals. We fully back the conclusion of the report that institutions need to use rankings responsibly as just one tool for assessment. In addition, U.S. News agrees that colleges should be encouraged to both collect and publish more assessment and student learning outcome data.

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